Amir Khan’s movie, Thugs of Hindustan reverberates the enduring fact that whenever Muslims were massacred, it was history that wielded the sword. Just see the term ‘thug’: The word echoes the names of Ameer Ali and Behram Thug. It seems that only Muslims took up this ruthless profession. Historically speaking, this perception is far from facts.

Thugs had no discrimination on religious or sectarian grounds. The aide of their chief, Ismaeel Thug was Ganesha who was a high ranked Hindu Brahman. Most of the thugs were devotees of Bhuvani Devi. After looting the merchants, they offered a considerable chunk of the booty to Kali Mata in Venda Chal. Against this offering, Hindu priests would bless adherents of the Devi with glad tidings of Nirvana.

The exertion to search the ‘footmark’ of thugs lands us in the era of Ferooz Shah (1266-1358). The historian of Ferooz Shahi era, Ziaud din Barni who remained imprisoned in the jail of Ferooz Shah Tughlaq, relates an interesting tale that once hundreds of thugs were apprehended and brought in the royal court, but instead of putting them behind the bars, they were shipped off at Lukhnoti to purge Delhi of their wickedness. This area is now included in District Muzaffar Nagar of Indian state Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, the word ‘thug’ is pronounced in Urdu, Hindi, Sindhi, Sanskrit and Punjabi in the same accent with a slight difference. Another term ‘PhansiGar’ was also introduced for such swindlers but it couldn’t snatch fame which was robbed by the word ‘thug’.

The modus operandi of thugs was specific trick of their trade. They would wander in the form of particular groups, establishing links with trading caravans and finding an opportunity, they would kill their victims and loot their goods. Their main weapon was a silky handkerchief whose corners were tied with stones. It was noosed in the neck of the victim who died within seconds without uttering any sound.

Multi-talented persons were included in the gangs of thugs. They were expert in their particular task. Three kind of thugs played important role in a successful exploit.

Sodhi: Thugs included in this pack were excellent riders. They were as shrewd as a serpent. They had the responsibility of spying and snooping. Marking the trading caravans, they would lead the travellers to the place where they could be ambushed.

Bhuttoi or Bhuttot: When Sodhi thugs, prevailing upon the traders, were able to bring them to a particular place, Bhutoi thugs, armed with silky handkerchiefs, would appear from nowhere and noosed them to death in a jiffy.

Loghi: In the end, a group of thugs would come in action. They would dispose of the corpses. They were called Loghis.

Besides, there were many servicemen in the gang of thugs. They would erect tents, manage provisions, cook food or do laundry and dress the hair. Usually deaf and dumb people were appointed on such services. The leader of the gang was called ‘Jumahdar’ who would get 8th part of the booty. Remaining was equally distributed among other thugs and servicemen.

British Government gives Col Sleemon the credit of eliminating thugs. During the rule of Lord William Bentinck, he was especially summoned from the UK. He established ‘Anti Thugi and Dacoity Department’ to meet this goal. Arresting Ameer Ali Thug, Col Sleemon presented him before Col Meadows Taylor. Later Col Meadows wrote a book ‘Confessions of a Thug’ on the bases of his conversation with Ameer Ali Thug who was made to be an approver instead of being punished. The chief of thugs, Ganesha Thug was also rounded up.

Col Taylor writes that when the thugs were brought to gallows, they were so satisfied and fearless that they appealed to allow them to noose themselves instead of being hanged by an executioner. He writes about Ameer Ali Thug that he confessed to have killed 719 persons. Then, according to Col Taylor, Ameer Ali heaved a sigh, saying that had he not been imprisoned in Lucknow for 12 years, he might have killed 1000 persons.

Some historians refute this claim. They think that Indian kings and lords had broken the loin of thugs prior to the adventure of the British. First of all, Nizam Haiderabad established Anti-Thugi department. When Ismaeel Thug and Ameer Ali Thug were presented in the court of Raja Jahloon, which comprised of district Jahloon of UP, the Raja ordered Islameel Thug to be crushed under foot of an elephant, while Ameer Ali’s house was burnt and he was imprisoned.

The British got aware of mysterious world of thugs much later, and for many years they could hardly believe that any unarmed gangs were so dangerous. But when Lieutenant Monsell and his company fell a prey to thugs, then British Government felt apprehension. It was decided to eliminate this evil.

Ameer Ali Khan’s father, Yousaf Ali Khan was a merchant in State Holkar. He was on his way to Indore along with his family. On the say, Ismaeel Thug tricked and killed him. When his wife Zanib peeked from the palki, Ismaeel’s aide Ganesha threw a dagger at her, killing her at the spot. When he was about to kill Yousaf Ali’s eight year old son, Ameer Ali, Ismaeel Thug saved his life and adopted him. When Ameer Ali grew young, Ismaeel Ali Thug decided to make him his successor. On the eve of his coronation, his silky handkerchief had pieces of silver instead of stones. Ameer was arrested many times; his daughter Ameern was also lost. The Indian movie, Umrao Jaan Ada tries to recount this story.

Ameer Ali could never forget that Ganesha was the killer of his mother. After releasing from prison twice, he again became a thug to kill him. When he was arrested by the British Government, Ameer Ali became an approver and gave a clue of Ganesha, taking his revenge upon him.

Thugs were eliminated but this profession still survives, though with different modus operandi. Thugs of bygone times looted goods, but thugs of today loot dreams of masses.


The writer is Lahore based Journalist.